New Delhi: A green needle-thin laser beam slices through the corridor and flickers gently on a 7mm sheet of metal 50m away. The chatter of the scientists gathered on the third floor of the Laser Science and Technology Centre (Lastec) in New Delhi dies down and the countdown begins. The boxes that house a prototype ordnance disposal system have come to life, unleashing a 500W beam that drills into the thin sheet, filling the corridor with the smell of burning metal.
A few floors below, Anil Kumar Maini, the director of the lab, swivels his computer screen to reveal what looks like a 3D video game. Figures in combat fatigues surround a house. A vehicle that looks like a cross between a tank and a Humvee drives up, stops about 300m away, and lets loose a laser beam that sets the house on fire. Militants hiding in the house run out, arms in the air.
Also Read Previous stories in the series
“We’ve been working on an ordnance disposal system for a while,” says Maini, “but it was only recently, at a conference, that the idea of using the system in low-intensity conflicts like Kashmir came up.”
The system, intended to destroy mines and munitions from a safe distance, can be adapted to set targets on fire. A 1kW laser, according to Maini, would do the job. “We’ve got the technology,” he says excitedly, “We just got to make it a little more rugged and fit it on to a Tata light specialist vehicle (LSV).”
He hopes to have a deployable system in two years.
Optimism has never been in short supply at Lastec, or for that matter at any one of the other 50 labs run by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Neither have money, scientists or ideas. The gargantuan network of labs across the country employs 7,000 scientists and 23,000 technical and support staff. Its budget for 2009-10 was Rs8,317.27 crore, dwarfing that of any other research establishment in the country.
DRDO’s mandate is to create products and technologies for the Armed Forces. It has interpreted that rather loosely, involving itself in every possible area—from animal husbandry to battle tanks.
But what has been in short supply, according to critics (including at various points of time, chiefs of the Armed Forces), are deployable products and technologies. They point to missed deadlines, cost overruns and shoddy output.
As recently as 30 April, two of DRDO’s Nishant unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) crashed in trials at the Pokhran airfield.
“All of DRDO’s big budget projects have been complete failures,” says Rahul Bedi, India correspondent of Jane’s Defense Weekly. The most glaring of these has been the Arjun battle tank, which took at least 35 years to develop and costs nearly 70% more than the T90, the tried and tested mainstay of the army. The Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) comes a close second.
“After all this, the engines, the main component of both these systems,” says Bedi scathingly, “are imported”.
In a tacit admission of these failures, DRDO has in recent years shifted some of its attention to spin-offs or adaptations of some of its military technologies for civilian use. It’s some of these that have made an impact.
“Nearly 95% of the technologies that we work on can be used in other areas,” says Ravi Gupta, director of public interface, DRDO. One of its earliest adaptations was the Kalam-Raju stent, a low-cost insert made using a new variety of stainless steel created by scientists at a DRDO lab in Hyderabad.
All DRDO labs are now, at the time of submitting proposals, required to list possible applications of their research.
Technology created by the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) to package food for soldiers at high altitudes has found its way to MTR Foods Ltd’s processed foods. DRDO’s laboratory in Leh has found a way to preserve seabuckthorn juice, creating the successful “Leh Berry“ brand.
DRDO has also made advances in insect control. Its latest product, Attracticide, promises to “lure and kill” the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the carrier of dengue, with military precision. The insecticide uses the tendency of mosquitoes to lay eggs on water that already contains larvae of the same species. Pheromones attract them, and the insect growth regulators that Attracticide contains prevent the larvae from developing into adults. The technology, DRDO says, has been tried successfully by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.
Another one of DRDO’s technology transfers has been to Jyothy Laboratories Ltd, giving the company exclusive global rights to market a range of insect repellent creams, lotions and sprays developed by DRDO. Jyothy estimates these to be four-five times more effective than similar products, and expects revenue of Rs30-40 crore from these this fiscal year.
With the increasing emphasis on spin-offs, the process of commercializing technologies at DRDO has been formalized. In January, the research agency, along with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), launched an accelerated technology assessment and commercialization (Atac) programme. Ficci assessed more than 200 products from 26 DRDO labs and chose 45 for commercialization.
These include bio-larvicides; techniques for treating effluents and contaminated water; a heat-setting technology for fabrics such as nylon, developed originally for parachute rigging lines, that gives them longer and better elasticity.
Also on offer are lightweight ceramics that can find applications in underwater structures, and phase-change materials that can absorb and retain heat for long stretches, making them useful for cooling telecom equipment, boiler rooms, high temperature areas in the construction industry, among others.
Eittee Gupta, assistant director, Ficci, says the market response to these technologies has been “excellent”. “The best thing about them,” she adds, “is their cost-effectiveness”.
Gupta, however, refused to give the costs at which these technologies were transferred.
DRDO’s most significant contributions have, however, been in medicine. Apart from the stent, the Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) lab in Gwalior has created an H1N1 detection kit as part of its nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) programme. The kit costs just Rs3,000 and can, according to Ravi Gupta, analyse a sample in two-four hours as opposed to the two days other kits need. DRDO will begin marketing it after clearance from the Indian Council of Medical Research.
Close to Lastec is another lab where much of DRDO’s medical research is taking place. The buildings in the sprawling campus of the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (Inmas) bristle with equipment. The lab was the first in India to acquire an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, and is one of the few to possess a cyclotron, used to synthesise short-lived radioactive isotopes.
Inmas runs a drug development and evaluation programme that started as a means of studying the effects of various stresses on soldiers. The lab has been able to “radio label” drugs to study how they are absorbed by the body and to determine which anatomical parts they act on. Corelating the two is a challenging task, but doing so successfully can cut drug development costs significantly. The lab has so far radio-labelled and evaluated 25 drugs, some for pharmaceutical companies.
It’s been a busy day for Rajendra Prashad Tripathi, director of the lab. The institute has been roped into the investigation of the Cobalt 60 radiation leak in Delhi, and a team of scientists is on its way to the Army Research and Referral Hospital to collect blood and urine samples from one of the victims. “Gauging the level of radiation exposure is a very difficult task,” he says. It’s also a rare research opportunity that will “be useful for our NBC programme”.
According to Tripathi, Inmas has created 40 new drugs. It has also pioneered the use of the molecule 2-deoxyglucose in the treatment of cancer. The technology has been transferred to Dr Reddy’s Laboratory Ltd, and is in advanced clinical trials.
Inmas has in collaboration with hospitals and research institutes countrywide, come up with a range of medical devices, from titanium dental and bone implants to inhalers that can dispense drugs for mountain sickness, high-altitude oedema and asthma more effectively.
Vikram R. Lele, chief of nuclear medicine at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, is a sceptic, however. “They’ve got the best equipment, but their work has not been very impressive,” he says. The institute has created some important radio-chemicals, but has failed to follow up on a number of others, he said.
On 12 May, defence minister A.K. Antony approved a radical overhaul of DRDO based on the recommendations of the P. Rama Rao committee, which conducted the first external review of DRDO. The recommendations include the disbanding of the food and life sciences lab to allow for a greater focus on critical weapons and military technologies. It will be the end of most of DRDO’s spin-offs, but that does not perturb Maini.
His lab is unlikely to come up with the ordnance disposal system or adapt it for use in low-intensity conflicts anytime soon. But “we’re also working on a vehicle-mounted, low-powered, but broad laser that can temporarily dazzle and disorient groups of people,” says Maini. “It can be used to control mobs and unruly crowds.”
If DRDO can manage to put a working model out on the street, Maini will have something to show for all that time and money.
Every Friday, this series chronicles technological innovation and India’s rise as a global R&D hub.